Steward: Lydia Ko Takes Collapse Well

July 11, 2016 GMT

SAN MARTIN -- Hours before the wacky, rules-sticky playoff ending between Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist on Sunday that decided the U.S. Women’s Open, it appeared the champion already had been all but crowned.

Lydia Ko, the world’s No. 1 player, had made one bogey in her previous 42 holes as she walked to the par-3 8th tee at CordeValle Golf Club. A hole earlier, at the par-4 sixth, she’d calmly rammed home a 20-foot birdie putt to go 8-under par. She had a two-shot lead with 12 holes to go.

Like Jordan Spieth at the Masters earlier this year before he played the 12th hole, Ko seemed like a stone-cold lock -- focused, unflappable, right on target with virtually every shot. She was going to win her 14th LPGA tournament and her third major at age 19. She was going to check another box on her way to golf immortality -- the youngest three-time major winner in golf history, beating out late-1800s stud Young Tom Morris by a couple of months.

Notwithstanding momentum and logic, disaster inexplicably struck. Ko bogeyed the 8th by hitting a chip shot long and then missing the putt coming back. On the 9th, it got worse. She hooked her tee shot into the left rough, then tried to use a hybrid club to clear a nasty fairway hazard. The ball landed in the swampy thicket, she never found it, and ultimately had to take a drop en route to a double bogey.

The way her fortunes were going, Ko wasn’t all that keen on poking through the reeds to try and find her ball.

“I knew it was really thick in there,” she said. “And there might be rattlesnakes, who knows?”

Ko tried to shake it off and remind herself she still had plenty of holes to play, but then she and her playing partners, South Korea’s Sung Hyun Park and Eun Hee Ji, were given a slow play warning and put on the clock by the USGA at the 11th hole. Attempting to speed up a bit, Ko bogeyed the 12th and 14th and her Open hopes were pretty much fried. She not only owned up to the slow play mess, she fell on the sword.

“I kind of felt bad, because I almost felt like it was a little bit more of my fault, because we were looking for the ball (at No. 9),” she said. “I was trying to get numbers on layups. It is tough to be on the clock when it is so windy and when every shot really counts. But we fell out of position and that’s the consequences with it.”

It’s tough to sugarcoat. Ko suffered a full-blown collapse, a flameout absolutely nobody expected. Much like Spieth. Much like the Warriors, quite honestly. They’re never easy to watch, but Ko made it less painful for everybody in her large circle of friends, family and fans. She walked off the course smiling, and it wasn’t one of those phony smile-through-the-gritted teeth grins. At worst, she looked and acted like she’d just lost a friendly game of backgammon, not the U.S. Women’s Open, arguably the biggest prize in women’s golf. No anger. No tears. Barely any remorse or regret.

“Unfortunately, I am not the one holding the trophy,” Ko said. “But I feel proud of the way I played. I wasn’t in any good position after the first day (nine shots behind, to be exact). And even to be leading after three days, I think, was a good performance. And this is the best finish I’ve had at the U.S. Open. So I think there are a lot of positives. Yeah, I loved it.”

Really, Lydia? You didn’t go back to your hotel room and take a 9-iron to a lamp? You didn’t cuss a blue streak and throw a shoe when nobody was looking? You didn’t snap that blasted 25-degree hybrid over your knee?

Those of us playing the back nine of life may be reassured by the fact that a woman who’s still a teen for another 10 months is capable of blowing up in a big moment of a major sporting event televised to millions. Maybe the millennials are not going to take over the Earth so easily and so soon after all. They are not automatons who scoff at pressure, the consequences of risk and the prospect of failure.

Then again, the way Ko handled things in the wake of her failure was nothing short of amazing and admirable. Perhaps she realizes she doesn’t have to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame before she’s 25, and that she’ll have plenty more good days, and plenty more chances to win Opens. She’s a great player, but her constitution is right in line with her considerable golf ability. It was on display all week at CordeValle.

Asked how she thought she might feel Monday when she’s had time to sort through the shipwreck, Ko didn’t waver.

“Probably better than today,” she said. “I’m flying to Toledo, I think, overnight, I’m taking a red eye. It’s been a fun week, but a really long week. So I think I’ll be craving sleep.”

She didn’t seem the least bit concerned about nightmares. Contact Carl Steward at csteward@bayareanewsgroup.com . More darting on Twitter @stewardsfolly.